40th Anniversary Restrospective: An Interview with Rae Gouirand

Poet Rae Gouirand’s first book, Open Winter (Bellday Books, 2011), has won the 2011 Bellday Prize, a 2012 Independent Publisher Book Award for Poetry, and the 2012 Eric Hoffer Book Award for Poetry. A regular contributor to The Journal, her poems first appeared in The Journal Issue 27.1, which was published in 2003. She recently spoke with Managing Editor Alex Fabrizio about Open Winter and other first books, manuscripting, and California’s Central Valley.

Alex Fabrizio: We’re just delighted to feature you in our anniversary contributor series, and pleased to report that your first book, Open Winter, was published by Bellday Books in 2011 to rave reviews and a profusion of prizes. Tell us a little bit about the book. How long have you been working on it? What inspired its themes and major concerns?

Rae Gouirand: Thanks, Alex, for the welcome. Since The Journal was one of the first journals to publish my work, it’s awfully nice to talk with you guys at this point in time. I’m not sure there are satisfying, definitive answers for those questions when the book in question is a first collection, and on top of that, I have a hard time separating the idea of working on the book from the project of being, honestly. If you’re a maker of things, there’s huge overlap between the project of living and one’s creative work. What I can say about the work that was published as “the book” is that the oldest poem in it was written in my first year of grad school, in 2000, and that the newest one (which was, unfortunately, pulled from the manuscript at the last minute because of space issues) was written just a few months before the manuscript was accepted in 2011. Open Winter was finalisted for a great number of first book and open competitions during the two and a half years it was circulating, and went through a few different incarnations on its way out into the world: it was at one point a collection in two acts, then ordered almost backwards, then, finally, arranged into four sections titled for fragments within those sections.

What inspired its themes and major concerns? …Can I just say “experience?” (Including my experience of others’ art?) All writing is both experiential and exploratory, regardless of its genre. In poetry, the line is the meeting edge of those two currents, and form is the border between the poem’s reality and its imagination—and just as faulty (think: earthquakes) as any argument we make about it. What the poems are “about” strikes me, always, as the wrong kind of question to ask, and I’ve always had a particularly hard time addressing that one: poems are about meaning. Not symbolism, but meaning, and how it can be made, acknowledged, or named. How sense can be communicated. A lot of the poems in Open Winter take the shape of meditations on continuity and interruption, or perpetuity and disruption, in the world and inside the self. The images and figures are seasonal, historical, hologram—and so was the process of writing the book. Poetry is, for me, perhaps a little more about white space than it might be for others: creating it, defending it, recognizing it, allowing it.

AF: Wow! It sounds like Open Winter went through a number of iterations before it found its current/final form. Do you have any advice for poets working on putting together their first manuscripts?

RG: Yes. I think it’s in the best interest of your poems that you are as far inside them as possible during the writing—that you engage what they are, and what they want from both you and the reader, entirely—but you need to be as far outside of them as possible during the manuscripting stage. The ideal time to work on a manuscript is when you’ve gained enough space from the work that the individual poems feel unfamiliar and surprising again. When they are just poems—not your poems. While it might seem more intuitive that you’d want to arrange your work so that it illuminates what you most want your reader to notice about it, and that that could best be achieved by mapping the most strategic or resolving arc for the individual pieces, I don’t think that those arcs necessarily serve to draw the reader into individual poems, to absorb them maximally. Engagement comes, I think, from there being enough room for readers to move, to realize the connections for themselves. And you want the reader to engage. That’s what will bring them back around for a second read. So many writers these days are challenging narrative tradition, its linear orientation, in fascinating ways. There’s no reason poets can’t look outside of beginning-middle-end, crisis-and-resolution, call-and-response, then-and-now, etc. templates for their manuscripts. I most want to read books that are like insane little art museums, or glimpses of mind itself. Books that behave the way that poetry itself behaves.

AF: As you know, The Journal is celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2013. It looks like your poems first appeared in our pages in 2003, now an entire decade ago! What was your writing life like back then? What, if anything, has changed?

RG: It’s so hard to imagine that decade as a decade!—2003 was, coincidentally, a pretty transitional year for me both on and off the page. I left a (post-MFA) lectureship at the University of Michigan to move to California with my partner at the time, and spent that year (sort of) writing full-time on a post-graduate fellowship award I’d won at Michigan and deferred. On some level, I think I spent most of that year taking apart my poetics: more narrative impulses gave way to new modes, and for quite some time none of my work made any sense to me at all, except when I was actually in the flow of writing. I could not have described it coherently at the time, but I think a new part of my brain was opening up, possibly so suddenly because my life was suddenly so unfamiliar. I managed to keep working my way further in—falling further away from what I’d originally thought my project as a poet was—after I returned to teaching and came to feel more grounded in all the levels of uncertainty that have become facts of my life since exiting the MFA cocoon. The timeline for coming to feel at home in and deeply identified with California’s Central Valley runs parallel to the timeline on which I came to feel really secure in the degree of openness and abstraction that characterizes most of my more recent work. I think my life on the west coast has shown me what my headspace actually looks like, and therefore opened up my poetics pretty strikingly. (And I don’t just mean in verse. The west coast has also helped me figure out a lot of key things about how my prose wants to behave.)

AF: It’s interesting to hear you talk about how your relocation to the west coast has run parallel to these changes in your work. Can you tell us more about this process? What about California’s Central Valley has affected you, or made you more open to abstraction and uncertainty? Or do you think these changes are simply evolutions of you as a writer—could they have happened anywhere?

RG: The Central Valley feels right in my blood—like the place I’m supposed to wake up most mornings, though I have loved other places deeply while they were home and know I will have additional places I call home in this lifetime. The land is alive, the light is spectacular, the sky is enormous, and even after a decade I can’t get over the miracle of persimmon trees in autumn. Also, most of the people I’m close to in northern California are east coast natives who’ve chosen to make their homes far from their points of origin, which flavors day-to-day life with that island community phenomenon I love to experience on residencies (birds of a feather ending up in the same place, instantly cognizant of their kinship). Those two factors have a lot to do with it, but ultimately it’s impossible to explain. The fit has changed a lot of things in my life—not just in my work.

AF: Is there anything that you would say to your millennium-era writer self? Any words of encouragement? Admonishment?

RG: My millennium-era self was pretty nervous about making her way in the world outside of the contexts in which she already understood herself and had been told she fit. So many people tell you to follow your heart, or to follow your bliss: ha. If I could send a letter to myself ten years ago, I’d tell myself to head straight for what freaked me out the most—to just head straight there, both in life and on the page. Both art and life flow a lot more functionally when you stop avoiding the stuff that makes you anxious. Um, especially art maybe. The only explorations worth pursuing, after a certain point, are the ones that are difficult enough, slippery enough, steep enough, to keep teaching us what it is that we’re actually pursuing.

AF: How do you think your work has changed or remained constant since “Flaneuse, Excuses” and “The Lessons of Bird,” which we published in Issue 27.1, our Spring/Summer 2003 issue?

RG: Changes: of surface, of style, of statement. Constants: a kind of relentless fascination with the line as both tradition and idea, an attention to space and light and time.

Alex Fabrizio is an MFA candidate in poetry at The Ohio State University and is originally from Florida. Her most recent work has appeared in Subtropics, The Los Angeles Review, West Branch, and elsewhere. She is the managing editor of The Journal.